Trying to explain an evil act like the one that killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is on a par with explaining how the universe was formed.
The natural human reaction after extending sympathy and prayers for the victims and their families is to ask what actions might have been taken to prevent the massacre. More gun laws? Connecticut already has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Those laws did not prevent a man with evil intent from carrying out his heinous act.
Some will blame TV and video game violence. Depictions of murder and other violent acts on TV and in the movies have grown in recent years, but people killed people long before TV and movies. Such explanations are too easy.
Would armed guards at Sandy Hook have helped? Possibly, but do we want guards at every elementary school, patrolling not only the halls but also playgrounds where kids ought to be able to play in an atmosphere of fun and freedom?
As much as humans have tried for millennia to prevent evil acts, we have not succeeded. In the modern era, Woodrow Wilson believed his League of Nations would usher in peace on Earth, if not good will to men. The United Nations followed that aborted experiment, and it has been equally unsuccessful in preventing the slaughter of innocents and other evil acts.
Political leaders not usually identified with spiritual concepts are making use of the word “evil” in accurately describing what happened in Newtown. We hear calls for prayers from politicians committed to the separation of church and state. Whether it is Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Fort Hood, Oklahoma City or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, evil seems to have gained a foothold in America.
More information about the killer will surface in the days to come, but even if we learn he was psychotic and off his medication, that will not satisfy our communal anger or anguish. It will not explain evil. It will not explain why 26 innocent lives were lost.
The way to deal with evil is to first acknowledge that it exists and that we all possess the potential for it. We don’t become evil by what we do, but because of who we are. We are human beings, not God. We are not “basically good,” as some claim; we are imperfect and fall far short of any true standard of perfection.
Evil is a “pre-existing condition.” In some it is controlled by an inner compass, or by laws and cultural constraints. When it is not, we get Sandy Hook and tragedies like it. We get what we do not understand and cannot begin to fathom.
There may be no greater expression of evil than the murder of children in their classrooms. In calling for prayers, officials have taken an important first step in combating evil, but a larger question should be asked. Perhaps theologians, pastors, priests and rabbis are the ones to ask it, but permit me a suggestion.
If there is a source of evil, is there also a source of good? And if there is, has that source for good been offended by all of the accumulated evil we are piling up, affording it an upper hand?